Chicago Cubs: 2016 Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year

*Editor’s Note:  This post was originally scheduled to be published on December 31, but due to personal sickness was delayed until now. 

 

They endured 108 years as the Lovable Losers, through a billy-goat curse, a black-cat jinx, and a Bartman blunder.  But now, after a World Series and a seventh game for the ages, the Chicago Cubs are, finally, the champions of baseball.

Historic championships always lend themselves to year-end honors, but with the Cubs it is hard to pinpoint one individual face of the franchise to recognize, as players, coaches, executives, and the fans all were an integral part of the storyline of the Cubs triumph.

Thus, the Chicago Cubs are, collectively, the 2016 Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year.

The Cubs, as World Series favorites from start to finish, stormed through the regular season at 103-58, the best season in MLB since 2004.

Leading the NLDS 2-1, the Cubs ended the Giants run of even-year titles and their 10-game elimination-game win streak when they came from 5-2 down in the ninth inning to win Game 4, pulling the largest ninth-inning comeback in a series clincher in MLB history.

Facing a 2-1 NLCS deficit against the Dodgers, they dominated the next three games by scores of 10-2, 8-4, and 5-0, cruising to their first World Series appearance since 1945, clinching the pennant in front of a raucous home crowd at Wrigley Field.

In the Fall Classic, the Cubs met the Cleveland Indians, who had a 68-year title drought of their own and took a 3-1 series lead, putting the Cubs’ backs against the wall.  The Cubs won 3-2 in Game 5, the last game of the series in Chicago, but still needed to win the final two games on the road to win the series, something that had not been done in a World Series since 1979.  A 9-3 Cubs win in Game 6, led by an Addison Russell grand slam, set up a monumental Game 7.

It took an 8-7, 10-inning instant classic for the Cubs to win the World Series–a game that included home runs by Dexter Fowler, Javier Baez and David Ross, three errors and a costly wild pitch, the loss of a four-run lead, some debatable strategy, and regaining the momentum after a rain delay to score in the 10th on a Ben Zobrist double, before two young, relatively unknown pitchers got the final three outs.

When Michael Martinez grounded into the final out, Wrigleyville could finally erupt in celebration of a world champion, feeling both the thrill of victory and the relief of a weight lifted that had been bogging them down for over a century.

The final out was, in baseball scoring terms, a 5-3 putout, from third baseman Kris Bryant to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a play that may be the most appropriate way for this team to clinch its championship.  Bryant and Rizzo, whose names have often been shortened and combined into the nickname “Bryzzo,” are the two young offensive stars of the Cubs franchise.

Bryant, the NL MVP, hit .292 with 39 home runs and 102 RBI, while Rizzo hit for an identical average with 32 home runs and 109 RBI.  Both are affable, young (Bryant is 24, Rizzo is 27), jovial stars who were beloved in Chicago quickly upon their arrivals, and now are practical immortals in the Windy City.  These two will be favorites in Chicago forever, but will be still team leaders for the North Siders over the coming years, a period that could include additional world championships.

But to focus on Bryant and Rizzo is to ignore the fantastic pitching the Cubs used all year.  Jake Arrieta had a fine season in defense of his 2015 NL Cy Young Award, yet was essentially the team’s third best pitcher behind veteran Jon Lester and breakout star Kyle Hendricks.

Lester, the NL Cy Young runner-up and NLCS MVP, went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, leading the team with 202.2 innings pitched and 197 strikeouts, and pitched the opener of each postseason series, as well as pivotal Game 5’s in both the NLCS and World Series, and three innings of relief in Game 7 of the World Series.  Hendricks, a 26-year old in just his second full season, was 16-8 and led baseball with a 2.13 ERA, finishing third in NL Cy Young voting and earning the win in the Cubs’ NLCS clincher, allowing just two runs over his final four postseason starts.

Behind every good pitching staff is also good catching, and while David Ross played the least of the Cubs’ three main catchers, he was one of the team’s biggest leaders.  The 39-year old in his 15th MLB season announced at the beginning of the year he would retire at season’s end, and “Grandpa Rossy” was given a farewell tour usually not seen for a role player such as a backup catcher.  But it was for good reason; his veteran leadership by example and positive attitude rubbed off on his teammates, aiding in their success.  Ross, who was Lester’s personal catcher, homered in Game 7 of the World Series–the final at-bat of his career–and was 2-for-5 overall in the World Series.

Many others from the top to the bottom of the Cubs roster had similar contribution.  Ben Zobrist, the son of a preacher who grew up two hours southwest of Chicago but as a fan of the rival Cardinals, earned the game-winning hit in Game 7 of the World Series, and earned series MVP honors after hitting .357 and slugging .500 in the series.

Kyle Schwarber, one of the best young players in baseball who had five home runs in the 2015 postseason, was thought to be lost for the season after suffering a torn ACL on April 7 in the third game of the season.  But Schwarber progressed rapidly through rehab, and after six months was cleared to resume baseball activities.  After just six at-bats in the developmental Arizona Fall League (in which he only got one hit), the Cubs and Schwarber agreed he was ready to play DH in the World Series.  In 17 at-bats in the World Series–his first against major league pitching in 201 days–Schwarber got seven hits (.412), with two RBI, three walks, and even a stolen base in Game 7.

The delivery of the immortality-inducing final out of the historic World Series came not from a big star, but from little-known Mike Montgomery.  The 26-year old southpaw in his second major league season was acquired on July 20 from Seattle, and projects long-term as a starting pitcher, but spent the last half of the season in the Cubs bullpen, pitching strong to a 2.82 ERA.  After struggling in the NLCS, Montgomery recovered to pitch 4.2 innings with one run allowed in the World Series.

With closer Aroldis Chapman expended in Game 7, and Carl Edwards struggling in the tenth, Montgomery came in with two outs and the potential tying run on base.  It only took two pitches for Montgomery to retire Michael Martinez and earn his first professional save at any level–a save that culminated an incredible game and clinched a championship 108 years in the making.

Even the Cub who may have struggled the most on the field throughout the season and the postseason made his own contribution to the North Siders’ title.  Jason Heyward, who signed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the team before the season, hit for just a .230 average in the regular season with 49 RBI and a career-low seven home runs, although he did contribute his usual stellar defense, winning his fourth career Gold Glove.  Heyward hit just .104 in the postseason with one RBI in 48 at-bats.

Yet it was Heyward, and not one of the multiple MVP-caliber players on the Cubs roster, who called a team meeting during the rain delay of Game 7.  The Cubs had led 5-1 before Cleveland had come back to tie the game at 6-6, and the skies had opened up just as extra innings were set to begin.

“I just had to remind everybody who we are, who these guys are, what we’ve overcome to get here,” Heyward told FOX Sports after the game.  “The beginning of every day, we didn’t worry about win or loss.  We’re just worried about how we’re going to go out there and have fun, compete, be right there for the guys next to us, and not take the situation for granted.  I just had to remind them of that, and I’m proud of these guys.”

Going out there and having fun is something the Cubs do well, thanks in large part to manager Joe Maddon.  To say Maddon’s teams in both Tampa Bay (2006-14) and Chicago (2015-present) have always been loose would be an understatement.

Maddon is the quintessential “players manager,” with a style that lets players be themselves and do whatever they wish, so long as they show up on time and perform on the field.  As a result, his players perform well more often.  Maddon always seemed to overachieve with young, upstart rosters in Tampa Bay, so once he had a championship-caliber roster with the Cubs, he delivered, likely sealing a future trip to Cooperstown.

Maddon was hired by the front office team of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.  Both Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations, and Hoyer, the general manager, now have a reputation as curse-breakers, after the pair were the top two in the front office in Boston when the Red Sox ended their 86-year drought in 2004, then ended an even longer one in Chicago.  Ending long-standing droughts for two of the most renowned franchises in baseball is remarkable, but it’s even more extraordinary when you consider that Epstein, the face of the front office, and Hoyer, a behind-the-scenes administrator, both just turned 43 in December.

The pair of Epstein and Hoyer were brought to Chicago for the sole purpose of ending “The Curse of the Billy Goat” by owner Tom Ricketts.  Ricketts, an investment banking executive, bought the Cubs franchise in 2009, and has now delivered on his vow to bring a championship to the Cubs and their fans.  This promise was important to Ricketts and his family, as Ricketts became a Cubs fan while attending the University of Chicago, met his wife in the Wrigley Field bleachers, and even once lived in an apartment at the “Sports Corner” of Addison and Sheffield, across the street from The Friendly Confines.

A Cubs fan leading the team to the title is only fitting, as this was truly the fans’ title.  No member of the Cubs roster has been with the team longer than six seasons, yet these loyal, dedicated, and overwhelmingly patient fans have been with the team for, in many cases, decades.  Entire lifetimes have been spent waiting for one moment, which finally came in the form of a slow grounder to third at 11:46 p.m. central time on November 2, 2016.

It was these fans who celebrated night and day in Wrigleyville and throughout Chicago after the title.  On November 4, two days after Game 7, an estimated five million people packed the route for the Cubs victory celebration, making it the seventh-largest gathering in human history, joining a list of most-attended events mainly reserved for religious pilgrimages and funerals of world leaders.

The event featured a parade from Wrigley Field down Michigan Avenue, culminating with a victory rally at Grant Park.  This “only when pigs fly” event occurred eight years to the day after another such event at Grant Park:  the victory speech of a black man, Barack Obama, elected as President of the United States.

But the impact was felt beyond just the coast of Lake Michigan, but from coast to coast of the United States.  The Cubs have a nationwide fanbase, thanks in large part to the many years their games were broadcast on WGN, and fans across the country celebrated.  It was the first title in the lifetime of nearly all of the Cubs’ numerous fans, with two known exceptions:  108-year-olds Mabel Ball of Illinois, who passed away just days after her Cubs win the World Series, and Hazel Nilson of New Hampshire.

Members of every World Series-winning team make appearances around the talk show circuit over the following days, but the Cubs collectively fulfilled more obligations than usual, with everything from Ellen to Saturday Night Live, where Rizzo, Ross and Fowler appeared with lifelong Cubs fan and former cast member Bill Murray in a barber shop quartet-style rendition of Steve Goodman’s “Go Cubs Go,” a team anthem that is played at Wrigley Field after victories and was heard throughout the country in the days following the World Series.

After 108 years of waiting, the Cubs and their fans got to celebrate.  A Cubs World Series title is one of the sports stories of a lifetime, and honoring one of these individuals or even the fans as the face of the triumph would be unfair to everyone else who participated in a historic championship run.  So after their phenomenal run to history, the Cubs are communally the Sportsmen of the Year.

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3 thoughts on “Chicago Cubs: 2016 Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year

  1. Pingback: Fast Five: 2016 Year in Review | Stiles On Sports

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